Two desserts on my Christmas table
Our Tuscan-Australian Christmas traditions
Since moving to Tuscany nearly 17 years ago, I've spent very few Christmasses home in Australia with my family and although I've gotten used to and have embraced my Tuscan in-law's Christmas traditions, as I have gotten older and had my own family with little ones to celebrate Christmas with, I find myself yearning for the Christmas traditions that I grew up with more than ever.
My in-laws' Christmas, in particular, involves celebrating Christmas Eve with an even more extravagant dinner than Christmas Day itself, all seafood or vegetarian, no red meat, and gifts at midnight. One Christmas Eve, when I was practising for my book proposal for Tortellini at Midnight, I cooked all the dishes my mother-in-law Angela grew up eating for her and the extended family – twenty of us! – things like Tuscan kale crostini, minestra di ceci (a soupy chickpea pasta), pesce finto (mashed potato, egg and tinned tuna shaped into a fish!) and insalata russa (Russian salad, which despite its name is on many Tuscan's celebratory tables, it wouldn't be missing from a Piemontese table either). Many of these ended up in the book.
Growing up in Australia with a Japanese mother and Australian father and then moving to China, I didn't really have the typical, “traditional” Christmas. Most often we were traveling for the holidays, escaping the bitter cold of northern China for the warm waters of Thailand, Indonesia or Malaysia. My memories of Christmas meals are of things like juicy sweet papaya and mango, cold, boiled prawns served on ice, pavlovas and barbecues, or satays sticks with peanut sauce, rice and incredible fruit buffets.
Christmas for us wasn't a religious holiday, but simply a special time to be together. No matter where we were – in a tropical resort on a beach, in a hotel room, at home in snowy Beijing or an Australian summer – I always remember feeling a sense of magic around Christmas, that excitement and surprise of discovering what presents Santa would bring (my parents went to great lengths to leave evidence of Santa’s visit, which in my mind now as a parent myself makes them heroes — once we found reindeer footprints in the snow on our 11th story Beijing balcony, another time Santa had forgotten to replace the fly screen after creeping in to leave presents under the tree. Santa always used different wrapping paper that I’d never seen before and had handwriting so unlike my parents. They were so good I never wanted to stop believing in Santa and I played along for years so my brother, 3 years young, and sister, 7 years younger, could benefit from the magic too), but as I grew older, it was the joy of just being together, all the good food, and it is still what I try to pass on to my young children now.
My favourite Christmas moment is, still in pyjamas, opening presents together under the tree – we still do this even as adults. The pyjamas are important. Breakfast is often a huge platter of fresh fruit that my mother prepares, then maybe my brother will cook up one of his famous “everything” breakfasts – eggs, grilled tomatoes and mushrooms, bacon. And then after presents and coffee, we make a nice, quite relaxed lunch together of lots of salads and sides, usually some fish and pavlova. For me, the taste of Christmas – now, as a long time expat, more than ever – is pavlova.
This year we will finally celebrate our first Christmas ever on our own, in our own house, with our first ever Christmas tree. I will keep it simple, because it'll most likely be just me and the girls (the problem with having a husband who works in hospitality): tortellini in brodo, a simple roast chicken and these cabbage, potato and mushroom involtini, followed by two desserts.
Ok, I only need one. But they are lovely to offer together (or offer one on Christmas Eve and the other on Christmas Day), partly because one is made of yolks, and the other of the whites, and you bake them one after the other the night before you need them, it's perfectly easy and there’s no food waste. And partly because for me they represent the best of our Tuscan-Australian Christmas ritual: Latte alla Portoghese, a simple, homely Tuscan favourite, reminiscent of crème caramel or flan; and of course a pavlova.
This pavlova wreath is based on one I developed for Good Food Australia many years ago now. I love the festive look of the wreath but also, as my family members are pavlova crust lovers, this shape gives maximum crust! You can and should use any seasonal fruit (in Australia I'd just use strawberries or mango here, perhaps the raspberries from my parent's garden too) but this simple combination of fresh mandarin, a little sprinkling of finely chopped dark chocolate and pine nuts is heavenly. Nuts, dark chocolate and orange tastes of Christmas to me now too, a favourite combination in Italian Christmas treats.
I'd highly recommend making these on the same day, which could be a day or two before you need to serve them – you'll already have the oven on for the flan, and the leftover egg whites, you may as well pop the pav in afterwards and then leave it to cool overnight in the oven.
Start with the latte alla portoghese, which involves first making a caramel, and then pouring over a lightly beaten egg, sugar and milk mixture. When you take it out of the oven, turn the heat down slightly, then whip the whites for the pavlova, shape the wreath and bake. Both desserts really benefit from being made the night before. If you're juggling fridge space, the flan should be kept in the fridge in its baking dish until you want to serve it – then it's just a courageous flip over onto a plate. The pavlova on its own can be kept somewhere cool and dry (not near steam or anywhere humid where it can lose its crunch) and you should only dress it right before you want to serve it.
Latte alla Portoghese (Tuscan Baked custard)
1 litre (4 cups) full-cream (whole) milk
1 vanilla bean, split open
170 g (3/4 cup) sugar
2 whole eggs
6 egg yolks
Notes: This recipe comes from my Italian sweets cookbook Torta della Nonna. Instead of vanilla, a thick piece of lemon peel or a teaspoon of ground coffee is nice too. You could bake this in a ring-shaped pudding tin but use what you have, keeping in mind the larger the tin, the shorter this custard will be and therefore you may need to adjust the cooking time. I like it in an oval dish that has about a 1 litre (34 fl oz/4 cup) capacity and is about 23 cm (9 in) long and 16 cm (6¼ in) wide – it comes out the perfect height if you ask me, like the one you see here – but you could use a rectangular baking tray or a cake tin (not springform, as it would leak), even individual ramekins (again, the baking time will be much shorter) – really whatever you can easily fit inside another baking tray that will be filled with hot water for the bain-marie.
Put the milk and vanilla bean in a saucepan over a medium heat. As soon as it is about to simmer, reduce the heat to low to ensure a gentle simmer. Watch it, as it will overflow suddenly if you aren't careful. Keep it at a gentle simmer for about 10 minutes, then remove from the heat and strain through a fine-mesh sieve into a jug.
Place 70 g (1/3 cup) of the sugar in a small saucepan and add 1 tablespoon of water. Bring to a simmer over a low heat and watch the syrup carefully until it turns amber. Resist the urge to stir but just try to let it do its thing, at least until the very end, when a swirl of the pan can help. Remove from the heat and pour immediately into your heatproof dish or tin of choice (see note) to cover the bottom. Don't worry if the syrup solidifies. Set aside.
Preheat the oven to 160°C (320°F). By hand, whisk together the eggs, yolks and the remaining sugar in a bowl. You don't want the mixture to be too frothy.
When the milk has cooled to the temperature of a warm bath, add it a little at a time to the egg mixture until you have gently incorporated all of it. Pour it carefully over the top of the caramel layer.
Fill a larger baking tray with hot water and place the custard dish inside so that the water reaches halfway up the dish. Place the whole thing in the oven. (If you have very heavy ceramic dishes for example, it may be safer to place the larger tray first in the oven fill with water, then add the custard filled tray).
Bake for 45 minutes, or until the custard is set (it will be quite wobbly to the touch still) and the top and edges are gently browned. Run a knife around the edge of the dish, place a serving plate (ideally one with a lip to catch the caramel) over the top and, with two hands, flip everything over in one swift, confident movement. Cut into slices and spoon over some extra caramel.
Pavlova wreath with mandarin, dark chocolate and pine nuts
6 large egg whites
200 grams (1 cup) fine sugar
1 teaspoon white vinegar or lemon juice
250 ml (1 cup) well-chilled cream
1 or 2 mandarins (or equivalent seasonal fruit)
25 grams 70% dark chocolate, finely chopped
1 tablespoon pine nuts (chopped almonds or hazelnuts work too)
Preheat the oven to 160ºC (320ºF).
Prepare a baking sheet with a layer of parchment paper. With a pencil, trace a circle roughly 25cm in diameter (a dinner plate does nicely) onto the baking paper and then flip the sheet over so you can still see the tracing. Place on a baking sheet.
In a very clean metal, ceramic or glass mixing bowl, beat the egg whites until soft and foamy, then slowly, one tablespoon at a time, add the sugar until you have a very glossy, thick mixture that doesn't slide around if you tip the bowl to the side. Add the vinegar and blend in.
Using the traced circle on your baking sheet as a guide, scoop heaped tablespoons of meringue onto the inside of the traced circle to form a ring. Continue, adding a second layer of meringue until you have used up all the meringue. With the back of a large spoon, gently smooth over the top of the ring, forming a petal-like pattern all the way around.
Turn the heat in the oven down to 125ºC (257ºF) and place pavlova wreath on the lower shelf of the oven and bake for about 80-90 minutes or until the pavlova is dry to the touch and the meringue is ivory coloured. Leaving the pavlova in the oven, turn heat off. Let the pavlova cool completely before removing from oven to avoid cracking.
Right before serving, whip the cream until fluffy, soft peaks form. Dollop over the top of the wreath, decorate with mandarin slices (peel them for a prettier pop of colour) and sprinkle over the chocolate and pine nuts.
An idea so as not to waste anything: Pavlova only keeps well for the day once it is dressed (though I am personally quite inclined to the slightly soggy leftovers the next day many are not) so if you are a smaller group or not planning on eating the whole thing that day, the easy thing about this wreath is you can actually just decorate half of it (which is actually what I’ve done here), or bring the naked wreath to the table, then cut in slices and have bowls of the toppings for guests to dollop and decorate their own slice as they like. The meringue on its own will keep well at room temperature, wrap tightly or if you have a cake tin or an airtight container large enough to hold it, that’s ideal.
Wishing you all a comforting, safe Christmas with the people you love.